Wednesday, February 10, 2010

“Two black guys?”

I nearly peed myself when I saw Samuel L. Jackson in the post-credits scene in Iron Man.

While talking about action movies with a male friend of mine, we got onto the topic of The Matrix. I started laughing, relating the story of how Will Smith famously turned down the role of Neo for the lead in the horrendous flop Wild Wild West, saying, ‘Yeah right – computers taking over the world?’

My friend laughed, but after a contemplative silence goes, “Well, I don’t think Will Smith would have worked as Neo anyway. It would’ve been weird to have Morpheus and Neo as black.”

Before I could stop myself, I yelped, “What? Don’t you think that’s a bit racist?” Which was bad ‘cos he was immediately on the defensive.

“It just would’ve changed my perception of the whole movie.”

“What do you mean? You wouldn’t know any better if it had happened differently, right?”

“Just that Neo is… he starts off as a really dry sort of guy.”

“And dry default equals white?”


“You’re saying that Mr Anderson is meant to be an Everyman.”


“And an Everyman is a white middle class male?”

By now I can practically hear him rolling his eyes. “Yes… But what would I know, I’m just an ego-centric white middle-class male too.”

My friend has this way of sneering, ‘Yeah yeah, just ignore me, I’m just a white middle class guy who wouldn’t know oppression’ whenever I say anything about the ‘isms’. I jumped back onto why Black Neo would have been problematic.

He failed to give me an adequate response. Just kept going back to, ‘Well, Morpheus was black too. If both Neo and Morpheus were black it would’ve been… different.”

Is there a black leading guys quota I’m not aware of?

Is it really that much of a stretch to have two of three heroes (if you count the three heroes to be Neo – Morpheus – Trinity) as non-white in a major blockbuster movie?

Laurence Fishburne (Morpheus) is African American. Moreover…

Marcus Chong (Tank) is multiracial*.

Anthony Ray Parker (Dozer) is African American.

Gloria Foster (The Oracle) is African American.

The sequels included Jada Pinkett-Smith (Niobe) and Harold Perrineau Jnr. (Link) and Sing Ngai/Collin Chou (Seraph) and Randall Duk Kim (The Keymaker).

But if Neo was black that’s overstepping the mark?

WHY? Because we already have token black characters – we can’t make the hero of the whole movie black? That’s just way too different/unlikely/threatening? The hero has to appeal to EVERYBODY – failing that he has to appeal to the majority, the target audience for whom every conceivable thing on this planet is created to cater for – who just so happen to be white heterosexual middle-class men.

I just find it so weird that my friend would feel this way. I think I upset him a little (well, I more or less called him racist) but seriously? He didn’t specifically reject the actor for the role (although he did say Will Smith isn’t serious enough), it was specifically the race of the actor.

Is it that hard to have the hero of a major action movie someone who is Other? Someone who is not You – but might represent Someone Else?

I asked him to name some movies starring black action heroes. He came up with Blade and Shaft. Here’s mine:

  • Blade
And that is all I had off the top of my head. Talk about brain fart. After some internet inspiration…

  • Samuel L. Jackson (HELL YES, particularly Pulp Fiction, Star Wars and Snakes on a Plane, and I am so loving him as Nick Fury)
  • Bruce Lee (including general actors of colour)
  • Jackie Chan
  • Vin Diesel
  • Jet Li
  • Will Smith, even though he did turn down The Matrix, still counts with the likes of Bad Boys and I Am Legend under his belt

And yes, I realise this is not a ground-breaking realisation. White-washing in the media and racism in Hollywood and never casting people of colour as heros or solo stars in their own rights - all of this has been critiqued before. It's 'been done'. But no, it's not done, it's still relevant. 'Cos it's still a problem.

*I am not entirely sure of Marcus Chong‘s real ethnicity and can’t seem to find any information on it. I know he was adopted by Chinese-Canadian Tommy Chong and that his name was originally Marcus Wyatt. To me he appears to be of mixed descent.

1 comment:

  1. I think it would have made a difference, and a really crucial one, and I'd be quite surprised if the likes of Cornel West wouldn't agree with that. (i own the trilogy and have listened to the comments voiceover version with Cornel more than once omg omg omg i'm a gEEK)

    He refers to the Matrix movies as being both "mainstream" and "race films" at one and the same time. Taken in context with his many other points made throughout his commentary, i take that to mean that the movies are doing world-disclosing work not only spiritually but on race specifically: the Matrix itself as self-anesthetizing narrative that keeps reality at bay, just like race/sex/class/merit and other social narratives that keep reality at a safe distance for those who choose to stay 'plugged in;' i.e. the Matrix as "First world" and/or white and/or male privilege.

    In that light, it sure seems like no accident at all that the several ethnicities and genders of Morpheus and the crew of his ship are what they are, while Mr. Anderson's boss and EVERY SINGLE Agent are white males.

    So it's fascinating to think about the thematic differences implied by white vs. black Neo. Both imply that the salvific revelation must emerge from the perspective of the oppressed. The former (white/polyethnic Neo) implies that the bridges are crossable and both the oppressor as well as the oppressed must choose to cross them (after Friere, King et al.); while the latter (black Neo) implies that that both the perspective AND the action must be taken up and run with by the oppressed (X, Garvey et al.)